God Comes At Us Fast

“Life comes at you fast.” The Nationwide Insurance company used that line as the theme for a series of commercials that emphasized the importance of good planning for the future. The message is well worn but never worn out: since the circumstances of life can change quickly, with the future somehow always rushing to greet us, the best time to build a buffer against the unexpected is right now.

“Life comes at you fast.” Each character in the drama of the first Christmas could have used those words as a title to their memoirs. Mary received the news that she was about to become pregnant with a child whose life’s purpose was to be nothing less than divine.  While she ultimately said Yes to this unsolicited plan for her life, I’ll bet her first instinct was to look for the exits.

When Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant (by another father, aka the Holy Spirit), he wanted out of the relationship. But an angel invaded his dream and told him to stay with the story because he had a crucial role to play in it. He chose not to bolt, but the surge of events must have made his head swim.

Because modern celebrations of Christmas are so much about keeping cherished traditions, and preparing for parties and gatherings that spice up the season, and developing just the right message and music for Christmas Eve services, we can overlook the spirit of surprise that was the heart of the first Christmas. At the heart of that story is the message that God comes at us fast. In the lives of Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the Magi, God was not an insurance policy. God was the instigator of plans that threw their lives into disarray. 

The brilliance of Charles Dickens’ story, A Christmas Carol, is that he managed to show Christmas as both a cherished holiday and the experience of God bursting into the lives of unsuspecting people. As we follow the story of Scrooge we glimpse people caroling in the streets of London, collecting for those in need, and preparing for Christmas dinner. Yet alongside that vision he showed us Christmas as an experience of new life, taking shape in a stingy man with too much worldly care. A Dickens Christmas may have included a turkey on the table, but it also showed us a sweaty and haunting night for Scrooge. And with all due respect for the angel who put Joseph on the right path as the adoptive father of Jesus, Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Future would have given me a lifetime of the heebie jeebies. 

A cherished Christmas tradition can be a way for God to open our eyes, touch our hearts, and breathe into us the energy of love. But Christmas is also the good news that God will sneak or break into the drama of history, with or without our consent, to bring possibilities of compassion and fresh faith precisely where they seem least likely to sprout. As God found a way to sneak love into the world through a peasant baby born on the fringes of the Roman Empire, God will find a way to bring mercy and peace and tenderness even and especially where we have established bulwarks of exclusion and hostility and brutality. In that sense, Christmas is always underway, a dream of a world at peace with itself, where abundance for all means scarcity for none. And in God’s eyes, if that dream has to enter the world again and again and again through the life of a baby born to a family that no one notices or cares about, except maybe by a few shepherds and stargazers, so be it.

For Mary and Joseph, the life of God came at them fast: but they chose to lean into that breathtaking wave of grace, rolled with it, and eventually anchored themselves sufficiently to become a sanctuary for a baby born to fill the world with hope. That peculiar grace of God is still alive and at large in the world, looking for room to work its creative power, enlisting accomplices wherever they can be found. Our beloved Christmas traditions are at their best when they point to the restless ache of God to have a home in our lives, and to infuse our lives with a peace so heart achingly sweet that we can not help but share it.

So thank God that God is always finding a way to comfort us and unsettle us, mobilizing a movement to heal the whole creation. To do so, God may come at us fast. Thanks be to God.

A Gift from God

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by Ed Horstmann

Madeline L’Engle was a gifted writer whose imagination has inspired millions of readers across the world. She was also a dedicated person of faith who brought her skill with words to participation in the church. When she was asked about the initial inspiration that led to her life-long commitment to the Christian way, she said that it had a lot to do with how she encountered the stories of faith as a child. Her grandmother introduced her to the Bible by encouraging her to read it as a storybook. She was given space to marvel at the characters and imagine her life in theirs. In this way she came to be a creative reader of sacred stories and found ways to bring the drama of their lives in subtle and explicit ways into the many books that she wrote as an adult.

During these days leading up to Christmas, maybe the best gift we can give to ourselves is some time with a story of the first Christmas: to read it as if for the first time. Try reading it aloud, with or to others, in different accents or in an unfamiliar translation. Read it slowly, savoring every word, as if you had never heard it before, and let it find its way into your imagination . . . and into your faith.

Here is a link to the story of Jesus’ birth as told in the Gospel according to Luke . . . a gift from God for peace on earth and good will among all.

Some New Words for Advent

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by Ed Horstmann

Hope, peace, love and joy: beautiful words! During the weeks before Christmas, churches often explore these four voices of Advent, and light candles to turn us toward the brightness of what they can mean for a full and meaningful life.

But this year I wondered what it would mean to let go of the familiar traditions and focus attention on some different words for Advent. Why not light candles for these words: interruption, intrusion, confusion, and anger?  I know this does not sound like an activity that syncs well with the run-up to Christmas but here’s my logic.

Prior to the birth of Jesus, the key characters in the unfolding drama of his life experienced precious little hope, peace, love, or joy. Mary was startled by the presence of an angel who announced not just the coming of a savior, but the unsettling news that she was to be his mother: not much peace there! When Joseph was told the disturbing news that he was to be the father of this child, he sought to distance himself from Mary as quickly as possible: not much love there! When King Herod was told by visiting astrologers that they had seen the sign of a star that signaled the rising of a different kind of king, he was full of jealous rage: not much joy there!

For these characters in the first Christmas pageant, the birth of Jesus came as an unwanted interruption that inspired fear, brought confusion, and stimulated envy. What makes this story meaningful and foundational to our spiritual wellness is that Mary and Joseph and the Magi allowed their lives to align with the intrusive power. Mary loved the child even while questions of his origins remained unanswered. Joseph cared for the holy family and risked his life to keep them safe. Those Magi-astrologers did not agree to be Herod’s spies but honored the child, kept his whereabouts safe, and then sneaked home by a secret way.

Thank God that those who were first entrusted with the infant baby came to welcome him, make a home for him, and nurture a life with him. Though over two thousand years separate us from the event of that child’s birth, he can certainly enter our lives and dwell in our hearts as he did then. “Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

Follow a Star

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by Ed Horstmann

In one of his poems Robert Frost offered this counsel: “When at times the mob is swayed to carry praise or blame too far, we may choose something like a star to stay our minds on and be stayed.” What is the star that “stays our minds” during these uncertain times? What does it ask of us by way of commitment?

The Bible is a book about great leaders but equally a book about great followers: their failures and foibles and faith. From Moses to Mary to the Magi and more . . . all of them, in their own way, followed a star. These people were not great because they organized massive projects or had brilliant educations or achieved major awards, but because they oriented themselves to the star of God’s dream for the world and followed it.

I do not consider myself a poet, but I offer this short reflection by way of thinking of those wise visitors who played such an important role in the life of the infant Jesus. And I hope these words may invite you to think about them as well, so that we, too, will follow only the stars that are truly worth following:

These Three Kings

They did not know one another
any better than they knew the road that
stretched before them.

These three kings were unrehearsed
in the rigors of long journeys,
unaccustomed to travel over great distances,

Yet the star would not take no for an answer.
The inevitable had become unavoidable;
they turned their camels toward the light.

At night they warmed themselves by the fire,
stepped out of its illumination
to confirm the star’s onward leading.

Their gifts rattled in the rough packs,
their teeth rattled from the plodding beasts.
They hid their shaking hands

from the king who demanded obedience —
opened their hearts to the infant king
who welcomed their love.

They went home by another way,
warned in a dream that saved their skins
and kept the child a holy secret:

The child whose light is now the star
that calls us from our homelands
to the horizon of all that love makes possible.

Preparing for Christmas on Round Hill

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by Ed Horstmann

In the weeks before Christmas the campus of Round Hill Community Church undergoes a quiet but profound transformation. Shortly after Thanksgiving, the pulpit in the sanctuary is removed, and week by week, a beautifully designed manger scene is installed—complete with crib for the Christ Child, hay for the animals, camels for the Magi, and a little lantern to chase away the darkness.

An Angel Tree is placed in the Parlor and on its branches are cards that include the names of children from Norwalk, with their simple wishes for Christmas. In the first two weeks of December members and friends of Round Hill Community Church purchase the requested gifts and place them beneath the tree where they remind us that the reason for the season is to reach out to the world with love.

In late November, the great tree in front of the Community House is strung with lights, and on the Sunday evening after Thanksgiving, the necessary electrical connections are completed, and those lights spring to life, announcing that Advent is near.

These physical changes to the campus are important to us who visit the space on a regular basis for worship, work, or to attend a program. They might catch the eye of those whose daily travels take them along Round Hill Road. Yet these subtle transformations will not merit much attention beyond the local community. And so it was with the first Christmas. In the backcountry of a vast empire, a profound transformation occurred; a child was born to a family with barely the means to sustain themselves, let alone a vulnerable baby.

And yet this seems to be the way that God loves to draw alongside our lives: off center rather than main stage, in the natural events and rhythms of life, in actions that add a little light here and there, and that make way for hope and generosity. God is with us and for us where we have prepared space to receive more love and faith and hope (even if those actions don’t make the news).

God is with us and for us as we dedicate ourselves and our resources to the well-being of the world. “Let it be to me according to your word,” said Mary to the Angel Gabriel when he delivered the news of her role in the unfolding dreams of God. “Let it be. . .” she said, as if to say, “Yes, I will make room for your life in mine, for your hopes in my hopes.”

As we transform our physical spaces to make way for the light and music and beauty of the Christmas season, may we be just as dedicated to the preparation of our interior lives, so that we can receive all that God intends for us, and bring light and life to others in whatever way possible. For as the old carol says, “Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want

 

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by Ed Horstmann

These are the opening words to the Twenty-third Psalm. It could be described as the heart of the Book of Psalms: a collection of 150 songs and poems that lies roughly at the geographical heart of the Bible. Though many of those psalms are no longer widely known, the Twenty-third Psalm continues to exert a quiet influence. When I preside at memorial services and graveside burials, it is almost always included as one the readings that people choose for comfort and consolation. It is sometimes a source of inspiration for popular songs, and if children are invited to memorize a few Biblical passages as part of their church school curriculum, the Twenty-third Psalm is certain to be included among them.

I suspect the enduring popularity of this one psalm has to do with its remarkable affirmation of life, condensed into a handful of memorable phrases. God is portrayed as giver of peace, companion through struggle, and provider of goodness through all the seasons of life. Through references to death and enemies there is an admission in these ancient words that life comes with challenges, and ultimately comes to an end. Yet “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

So I give you the Twenty-third psalm: words of encouragement for people of faith who are also prisoners of hope. An ancient poem that opens a clear channel between us and God, whose power can soothe our jittery nerves and prepare us to face the future with humility and defiance.

Reflections

“Psalm 23 is . . . the most familiar and most loved of all the Psalms. It is a psalm of trust that voices full confidence in the steadfast presence of God as the defining reality of life.”
– Walter Brueggemann From Whom No Secrets Are Hid: Introducing the Psalms

“If any psalm provides a little tabernacle of grace, this is it. Its pastoral images put you in a cool, lush, quiet, meadow spot, some echo of an original Garden, a reminder that God’s first encounters with the creatures of the earth were in the great outdoors, in the cool of the evening.”
– Ray Waddle A Turbulent Peace: The Psalms for Our Time

Congregations Pray

by Ed Horstmann

“Prayer is an uprising against the disorder of the world.”
Karl Barth

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In recent years there have been so many references in the media to the decline of the church, we may be in danger of forgetting that the vitality of the church cannot always be measured in numbers. Small groups of faithful people, with or without church buildings, find ways in changing times to practice the strengths that define us: compassion, spiritual curiosity, and openness to the Spirit. After all, faith is a way of life, and can be cultivated wherever we live and move and have our being. As Jesus said, “Wherever two or three are gathered, there am I in the midst of them.”

One of the strengths of the church is the capacity to pray. “Congregations pray,” writes Gary Gunderson in his book, Deeply Woven Roots. “And the prayer makes and marks the difference between them and other voluntary forms of association…Prayer is not just a service provided to the community. It is the experienced intersection of the holy and human…As we grow through life, we must constantly learn to pray in new ways, seeking depth to match the complexity of our experience. The passage and reversals of life literally force us to our knees and into silence.”

We pray to care for others, to deepen our friendship with God, and to galvanize our communities of faith in response to opportunities and threats. On the morning of October 28 we prayed as a congregation for the friends, families and communities associated with Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the aftermath of the shootings there that claimed the lives of eleven people and left six others wounded. Who could begin to count the number of people whose lives have been so radically disrupted by these acts of violence?

May all our prayers center us in the Spirit, so that we may be ambassadors of God’s ongoing movement of peace, faith, hope and love.

PASTORAL PRAYER

O God of peace, O God of compassion:
We gather in your presence this morning, in the warm embrace of your love.
We give thanks for the many ways that you care for us, encourage us, and are an experience of sanctuary for us.

We gather also in the awareness that your love strengthens us to reach out to the world around us with faith, hope and love: that as we cared for, so also do you call upon us to care for others

On this day, we reach beyond our community to pray for all those whose lives have ben impacted by the recent acts of violence at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. We share in the deep sense of loss that their families, friends and community are feeling. We stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters across the world, especially as we see the rise of language and actions designed to threaten their wellbeing. We pray that all those entrusted with responsibilities for leadership will use their authority to denounce any words or actions that deny or threaten the sacredness of all people.

O God of all creation, when we lose track of our sacred calling to live in peace, and to resolve conflict in kindly ways, call us back to your vision of peace on earth and good will among all people. When we lose track of the deep interconnectedness of all life, call us back to your vision of peace on earth and good will among all people. When we lose sight of a vision for life on earth that is established on a foundation of mutual respect and kindness, fill us with your love, and strengthen us to be ambassadors of your mercy.

And as we begin to make our transition from this sanctuary to the sanctuary of the wider world, help us at all times and in all places to be an experience of grace for others. Infuse our lives with patience and vision so that we may walk with dignity in the details of our lives while at the same time holding to your loving embrace for all humankind. Help us to relinquish any anxiety about the future, and in its place may we take up the bold adventure of faith, with tough minds and tender hearts.

All this we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.